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SF Chronicle, 12-16-2003

Two small theater groups join forces for Major Triumph

-- Robert Hurwitt

One of the greatest rewards
of attending a lot of small theater is to be present when one of these persistently striving bands of artists achieves a major breakthrough, especially with the premiere of an intelligent and stageworthy new play so richly presented and performed that it would do many a larger company proud. The Shotgun Players' "The Death of Meyerhold," which opened Thursday at Berkeley's Live Oak Theater, is such an occasion.

A riveting and thought-provoking drama, playwright-director Mark Jackson's ambitious project is an epic, three-hour exploration of the life, theatrical techniques and politics of Vsevolod Emilievich Meyerhold, the Soviet director and theoretician whose ideas -- often contrasted with those of the no-less influential Konstantin Stanislavski -- radically reshaped much of 20th century theater.

Meyerhold was also a leading Bolshevik artist executed in a prison camp as a counter-revolutionary in 1940. Which means that telling his story requires dramatizing much of late tsarist and early Soviet political and theater history, as well.
It's a project so ambitious that it required the combined talents of at least two small companies. Jackson, who conceived, wrote and staged the play, is the founding artistic director of the often impressive Art Street Theatre, some of whose actors fill key roles in the 12-person ensemble.

Patrick Dooley, founding artistic director of the somewhat larger Shotgun (and an actor in the show), encouraged the project and undertook to produce its premiere in a split two-month run at the Live Oak through Dec. 28 and at the Julia Morgan Theater in January.

From the topic and its provenance, "Meyerhold" sounds as if it could be a play that evolved from a conversation between two theater directors, which is just how it begins -- as a staged talk between Dooley's smug, condescending interviewer and a naively enthusiastic Jackson.

Jackson outlines some of the history and Meyerhold's physically based acting techniques, which utilized dance, acrobatics, commedia and time-motion studies. Contrary to our usual desire for simplistic contrasts, he argues, there's an underlying sympathy between Meyerhold's essential goals and those of Stanislavski's psychological realism.

As the conversation continues, and Jackson discusses the endlessly intriguing complexities of history -- and just how devoted a Stalinist Meyerhold really was -- actors appear on and around the two-tiered wooden scaffold set.

If Dooley's indulgent smirks signal disbelief that so dry a topic could become a play, the burst of music and action that transports us back to an 1898 Stanislavski (a commanding Richard Louis James) rehearsal of "The Sea Gull" quickly puts that idea to rest.

Jackson's script and the actors take over from there, with some excellent support from Robert Ted Anderson's starkly dramatic lights, Valera Coble's vividly representative costumes, and eloquent excerpts from Shostakovich, Edith Piaf, Puccini, Chopin and Bix Beiderbecke in Jake Rodriguez's sound design.

Using an astonishingly effective blend of Stanislavski's and Meyerhold's techniques -- Art Street regular Beth Wilmurt's brilliant one-woman "Hamlet" is worth the price of admission alone -- Jackson and the actors bring the refreshingly complex whirlwind of ideas, historical truths and character nuances compellingly to life.

A magnetic Cassidy Brown anchors the show as a fervent, deeply engaged, brooding, distant, tender and autocratic Meyerhold, as the story moves from tsarist repression through revolutionary idealism to Stalinist terror.

Richly physical, broadly caricatured and solidly realistic portraits by the ensemble embody the heady interplay of history and theory, punctuated with dynamic political arguments, moments of stark personal drama and significant gunshots -- with some outstanding work by Isabelle Ortega as Meyerhold's wife, Clive Worsley as the great poet Mayakovsky, Benjamin Privitt as a lead actor and Kevin Clarke as a basket-case Shostakovich.
Jackson brings the story close to home, too, playing off Stalinist purges and anti-Semitism against American intellectuals' idealization of the Soviet Union.

Even the projected scene titles come into play with occasional wry commentary or second thoughts on the stage action. All in all, "Meyerhold" is a remarkable achievement for the playwright and for the companies involved.

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